Leon, Nicaragua – Travel Guide

Leon is a shabbier, more streetwise and arguably more authentic brother to Granada. There’s no doubt about it, Nicaragua an ideal destination for budget travellers. With private rooms to be found for $8, rice and beans available on the street for a quick eat and things to do that easily come in at under $5, Leon is an awesome place for backpackers to explore.

Looking out over Leon Nicaragua - Charlie on Travel

Things to Do in Leon, Nicaragua

Leon is a hub for tour operators boasting trips to volcanoes and everywhere else they can think of, but truth be told, there are plenty of cultural activities to do in the city too.

Volcano Board

Sliding down the black sands of Cerro Negro, an active volcano, on an old bit of plywood is something you’ll certainly never get to do anywhere else! Well technically you can go volcano ‘surfing’ in Hawaii, which sounds pretty darm similar. Charlie did a longer post on whether volcano boarding is awesome (in her opinion, no) while National Geographic spoke a little more fondly of it.

I recommend volcano boarding with hesitation, as it’s pretty much just as dangerous as it looks (possibly more dangerous than it looks). Half of the fun is in climbing the volcano and admiring the view, so the safety-conscious can save $5 by choosing to walk down rather than board.

Luke speeding down

Admire Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián

Not expecting much, we found ourselves captivated by the art in this peaceful gem of a gallery. The tour guides were so helpful and the gallery so interesting that we almost felt bad that the admission price was so low! You should check it out if you’re even remotely into art, I think it holds it’s own even when compared to London’s Tate Modern.

Art gallery Leon Nicaragua - Charlie on Travel

Walk on the Roof of Leon Cathedral

Walking barefoot across the roof of Leon’s colossal Cathedral, the largest in Central America, is an excellent way to get to know the city. From up above the bustle, you can see all of Leon before you and a number of Nicaragua’s ominous volcanoes. The cathedral, like much of the city, still bears the scorch marks of Nicaragua’s explosive past.

Charlie on the roof of Leon Cathedral Nicaragua - Charlie on Travel 1

Where to Eat in Leon, Nicaragua

As budget-conscious veggies, we struggled to find food in Leon that was both healthy and reasonably priced. If you are majorly into pizza or steak, then you’ll probably have better luck.

CocinArte was a charming vegetarian restaurant, managed by a long-term German expat. The menu is very international with everything from tagine to curry on offer, though the prices are a little high for budget travellers and Charlie said her food was too salty.

Italian Nicaraguan fusion anyone? Prices are a little high and the portions are a little small at Nicaraguita Cafe, but the food is pretty good and it’s a nice place to drink a beer or a coffee.

We were wary of trying El Desayunazo because Tripadvisor reviews that describe a place as having the ‘best international breakfast in town’ tend to point to eateries that are over-priced and under-flavoured. But we were totally wrong. Not only was the food good, generous and reasonable, but the building has a nice atmosphere and the clientele were mostly locals, with a few gringos thrown in.

Food at CocinArte Leon Nicaragua - Charlie on Travel
A super expensivo meal at CocinArte.

Where to Sleep in Leon, Nicaragua

Sonati, $15 for a private double

Ah Sonati. More like where not to sleep. We were looking forward to our stay at Sonati, and who wouldn’t? They are expertly advertised as a cool hostel with charitable ties to the local community and organic coffee on tap!

However, in seven months of budget travel and counting, this is the only place in Central America that we had to leave early. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong: no toilet paper, broken locks on the door, no windows, no internet connection in the building… When we were faced with no running water for the second day in a row, we decided to call it a day and pack our bags, though not before we paid a bill that was a little high than it should be (it wasn’t the usual few hour water shortages that you get in Nicaragua, as our neighbours had no trouble with their water supply).

Sonati is a little like a university dormitory in that everyone is trying to change the world but nobody wants to do the washing up. It is mostly ‘run’ by student volunteers too, who are super nice but far from professional. Their tours are perfectly reasonable, but you’ll get a better deal and a better time with one of the other tour companies in the city.

Sleeping in safe hostels - Charlie on Travel

Casa Nicarina (possibly, maybe not that exact name), $8 for private double room

How do you like that price? Literally just round the corner from Sonati, there’s a little family-run guesthouse that will give you a room for half the price what the established hostels are asking. Not only that, but they are determined to help their guests in any way they can. You won’t be one of fifteen backpackers trying to get onto Facebook here, so the internet connection will be better too. You won’t find this place on Google Maps, so just walk along the main strip with your eyes open.


Luke Nicholson

Luke is Charlie's partner and long-term travel companion. Though currently working as an online marketer, Luke is also a CELTA qualified ESL teacher, experienced house sitter and avid video gamer. He loves howler monkeys too.

10 thoughts to “Leon, Nicaragua – Travel Guide”

    1. Yes, it’s extremely beautiful. I’ve seen some older photos of it looking very run down and dirty, they’ve white-washed it and cleaned it up a lot though! And yes, Leon is a safe city in our experience, though we didn’t go out past 9pm :p

    2. Leon is safe. Going back Friday just spent 5 weeks in Granada. My third time here. Both cities are safe. In both Granada and Leon it is more about knowing which barrios are safe.. It is correct that Leon is more authentic than Granada. I remember when the gringos did not venture past the park here or maybe the church. Now they are everywhere. Nicaragua has no been discovered. I am hoping that there will be fewer gringos in Leon. People are friendly in Leon. They will sit besdie you and start speaking Spanish and no they are not after something hey just like people.
      As far as safety goes Nicaragua is a safer bet than surrounding countries or Ecuador. Just don’t flash jewellery or money around

      1. Yes, I’m sure being in the know about which barrios are safe is very helpful. I don’t know that Nicaragua is safer than surrounding countries like Costa Rica though? But I haven’t read any stats on this to be sure. Nicaragua has been a very popular destination and widely talked about in 2014, which I’m sure is very much related to the increase in tourists and expats too.

  1. I loved Leon, but I actually stayed in the lovely beach town of Las Penitas for a week and took the bus in and out of town. I loved the beach town and it’s bars and fisherman quaintness. I would take an early bus into town…about 20 minutes into town and arrive back in time to take a swim and have a meal on the beach and watch the sunset over the ocean. Loved the cathedral roof, the art museum and square and market near the cathedral and walking around the city.

  2. Really wish I’d read this post before I left Leon…Italian Nicaraguan fusion sounds like something that needs to be experienced haha. Such a cool city though, I really enjoyed Leon a lot. For anyone who’s thinking of heading thre soon, there’s a free walking tour just starting up too which is well worth checking out. I’m in rainy Granada now and wishing I’d stayed longer in Leon!

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